Another Look at Charter Schools’ Results

I take great pride in the work we have done the last few years to change the conversation when it comes to the achievement results from publicly funded schools. The status quo was unacceptable: 50 percent of San Jose’s students scored below grade level proficiency on math and language arts on California Standards test, and there was an achievement gap of at least 30 percent.

There is no doubt that the vast preponderance of teachers, principals and superintendents work tirelessly to see that all children succeed. However, they sometimes fall victim to a system that works in favor of the adults rather than the children. For 30 years, the results have not budged when it comes to the achievement of low-income students. The gap has only narrowed incrementally.

The Santa Clara County Board of Education has very little to no leverage by state statute to affect district scores. However, the state legislature in 1992 gave County Offices of Education the right to approve publicly funded charter schools on appeal if denied by local school district boards, or directly on a countywide basis without going to local school districts for approval first.

The SCCOE Board on a 5-2 vote in December 2011 (Trustees Song and Chang opposed) took a bold stand to approve 20 Rocketship charter schools in the next four years along with the five previously approved a year earlier.

With fewer government regulations, charter schools can be the engine to innovate. They can demonstrate that this new innovation works to increase student achievement, then disseminate the results. There is no secret to what works for those of us who have studied these issues during our career: strong teachers, exemplary leadership, longer school days, use of individual student data to drive instruction, parents involved in the learning of their children, academic rigor and a consistent school mission.

Rocketship’s schools show that their blended learning model, use of Teach for America teachers (80 percent of the total full-time equivalent of teachers), and teacher home visits, matched with the aforementioned factors, produce extraordinary results for a mostly free or reduced lunch qualified population of learners. Hundreds of parents signed up for Rocketships’ waiting list to win a lottery slot for their children to be enrolled.

As the County Board looks into authorizing a zoning exemption for a new Rocketship School (#8) on Lick Ave. off of Alma, by the Tamien light rail station, we are at a new day with a more reflective conversation. This issue comes up tomorrow night on the SCCOE’s Board agenda in Action Item 14A.

In an attempt to understand the issue on all sides, I attended a walk around the Washington School (San Jose Unified) area, through the neighborhoods where two Rocketship schools currently exist and where the third one—if the zoning exemption is approved—would be erected. Trustee Song and nine community members participated.

At the end of the walk we came back to Washington School and met with other parents and Prinicipal Maria Arias Evans.

I left the meeting in the Washington library after a reflective conversation about where we are today, in context of the competing charter schools. Washington is a learning community on the move, reaching an Academic Performance Index of 798 and a similar school rank of 10 out of 10. There is no doubt the school employs all the key factors listed above about effective schools.

Two questions I had after the meeting were: Why would parents of an effective traditional public elementary school want to move their children to a charter school? And, is the competition with one more Rocketship in the neighborhood a good thing for all children, or might it do harm to some?

Washington claims Rocketship recruiters use pressure tactics to persuade the parents to place their child on a Rocketship waiting list. The SCCOE Board must find out if this accusation is true. If so, it would be discouraging to me and contrary to what Rocketship has told the County Board.

Parent choice is an important part of the equation for me as long as the choice is about school quality. Competition in America has always been a beneficial attribute of our society. However, competition that weakens an excellent traditional public school working on all cylinders, in all the right ways, is not what I think the SCCOE Board intended when it cast its 5-2 vote last December.

I think it is time for us to ask an outside source to prepare a white paper on where we are in working toward eliminating the achievement gap in San Jose/Silicon Valley by 2020. One thing we did agree to at the Washington table is teacher tenure, as it is practiced today, is a severe impediment to changing the status quo.

Joseph DiSalvo is the president of the Santa Clara County Board of Education. He was born and raised in San Jose.

Joseph Di Salvo is a member of the Santa Clara County Office of Education’s Board of Trustees. He is a San Jose native. His columns reflect his personal opinion.

One Comment

  1. There are so many great things in this post, I don’t know what to compliment first. I heartily applaud your efforts to close the achievement gap for underserved and needy students. I love that you sought out the real facts on the ground in the Washington School situation before taking action. I admire your candor when you admit that what you found caused you to rethink a previous board decision, and that Washington School is a community on the rise, firing on all cylinders, that deserves respect and protection from disruption. But what I cheer most emphatically is the idea that real educational needs of students must be the bedrock on which every charter stands. When a school or district is achieving at a high level, any competitive charter proposal must be viewed very skeptically, if it’s entertained at all, by the county board. When parents’ “right” to school choice is allowed to rest on something other than school quality and student needs & performace, we place at risk the entire public school enterprise. Through this lens, charters granted for reasons other than the educational needs of students are simply illegitimate—and should be avoided or terminated. California’s top-ranked elementary school district, located within your jurisdiction, is under serious threat of disruption from a charter school established by your board. Based on your new insights about the impropriety of charters in high performing districts, shouldn’t the Los Altos School District be defended by SCCBOE as a model district for our entire state? Shouldn’t LASD be allowed to operate unmolested by a hostile charter? Focusing your limited bandwidth on actual and substantial needs of students is good policy. Employing the powers of charter law as a remedy for failing schools, as a way to close the achievement gap, is perfectly appropriate. So too, is it appropriate to rethink a previous board action once you learn that the situation on the ground doesn’t justify the original action. Remaining open to new information and the capacity to rethink your previous stance on an issue is to be commended. It proves that you are, as we all should be, still growing, still learning. Thank you for sharing your path forward with us.